YouTube was founded in 2005, the year before Nam June Paik, the Korean-born “father of video art” died. The prescient artist lived to see one of his many predictions begin to come true: He once speculated that everyone would have their own television channel. He probably would have loved supercuts, keyboard cat, and the evolution of dance.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum received Paik’s archive in 2009, and an exhibition of his video works, sculptures, and other material goes on display Dec. 13 through Aug. 11, 2013. “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” proffers Paik as the first man who truly grasped how profoundly television would change our world.
Paik manipulated the technology used to create television. In 1965’s “Magnet TV,” he found that a giant magnet placed atop the set could disrupt the pattern on the screen, creating a work of abstract art.
Paik was constantly thinking of the future of media. Some of his predictions are listed on this untitled work, below. Other papers in the exhibit outline the basis for online universities like Udacity, and “bookless literature” and “moneyless society.” In his video “Global Groove,” he predicted that one day, “TV guides will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book.”
Paik’s “TV Garden,” which fills the main room of the SAAM’s exhibit, celebrates the growth and spread of television.
Even the simple shape of the television fascinated Paik. He would often draw simplified televisions: A rectangle with rounded corners for the screen, surrounded by the rectangle of the outer box, and sometimes containing a smiley face. Paik created a series of drawings on newspaper after he suffered a stroke in 1996.
Paik also sought to personify television, and make human interaction with it less passive. He made a TV cello for his friend and collaborator, Charlotte Moorman, to play, while wearing TV glasses and a TV bra that, no doubt, make Lady Gaga swoon with envy today. He also constructed a whimsical family of robots from TVs, using the most antiquated technology for the “grandparents,” and the newest technology for the “baby.” One of those robots is tweeting for the SAAM as @Paikbot. The figure below is a tribute to Paik’s friend, dancer Merce Cunningham.
Paik’s works are hypnotic in the “Turn on, tune in, zone out” sense of TV, but they’re also contemplative. “Zen for TV” asks us to consider the nothingness of a busted set — it has literally flatlined — while, in another work, Rodin’s “The Thinker” ponders the snow caused by electronic noise. The flickering light of analog TV feels different when viewed in person. So, even though some of Paik’s videos could have been YouTube viral hits in an alternate history, it’s better to view this artist’s vision of the future the old-fashioned way.